An open letter to my students: Never surrender!

Dear Students,

I am concerned about (some of) you.

This letter was prompted by a potential worrisome trend occurring within your generation: doom spending.

I get why youthful optimism has waned within your generation.

You watched your government botch the pandemic response, robbing many of you of important adolescent experiences. The resulting inflation—which the country has not seen since the early 1980s—is cutting you off at the knees. The cost of a bag of groceries or even a burrito is ridiculous.

Rents are skyrocketing. The country is nearly six million “doors short” because of poor urban planning and rampant NIMBYism that keeps low-cost, high-rise housing from being built. Oh yeah, and to borrow money to own one those “doors” is also ridiculous due to said inflation.

To top it off, AI threatens to take away the entry level jobs you were counting on to kickstart your career.

Your social media habits aren’t helping. Half of Gen Z spends four hours a day on social media! Tik Tok is feeding you your peer’s constant complaints, all while covering two catastrophic wars the United States is involved in. Simultaneously, Instagram is feeding you a life out of reach: a never-ending batch of more successful, better-looking people taking (real or fake) vacations to exotic destinations.

When I was your age, the world too had its challenges. The U.S. was in a recession, the LA riots occurred in response to the Rodney King beating, and the Gulf War had started.

My friends and I knew about these events, but they were not ever-present in our pockets. Moreover, the people we compared ourselves to were on campus—not across the globe.

In response to this pessimism, so the media stories go, about 27% of Americans are engaging in doom spending, with higher rates among Millennials and Gen Z. For example, Nia Holland, a 24-year-old graduate student, exemplifies this trend by spending $2,500 on a vintage Chanel bag, a purchase that drained her savings but provided her a sense of fulfillment amid economic and global uncertainties.

Whereas the media characterizes this behavior as a coping mechanism, I believe a better psychological explanation is related to the psychology of goals.

People balance a variety of short and long-term goals—many which require sustained effort and delayed gratification. Want to be fit? Skip the soda and late-night binging and hit the gym or the pavement.

Some reasons people give up their goals are positive. Goals get released when you achieve a goal or are “close enough.” It is time to turn your attention to other important goals. Seniors in college may take their foot off the gas in their courses, for example, when they get a job to have more fun before graduation.

Sometimes, another goal comes along that is more important. The technical term is “goal conflict. A senior may take his or her foot off the gas in class in order to focus on finding that job.

The reason for this “mini-lesson” on goals is the final reason people give up on their goals: they surrender their hopes, dreams, and desires because they feel their goals are too far out of reach. I suspect this what is going on with these so-called doom spenders. Saving for a better life feels out of reach. So they spend.

This concerns me. To give up planning for a bright future guarantees a dim future. In other words: while being young and poor is okay, being old and poor is terrible.

You can’t control inflation, but you can control your response to it. Victor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, famously said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Start by recognizing that the “good old days” were not that good.

Today’s percentages of homeownership, car ownership, and college degrees are higher than they were in the 1950s. Consider, too, your great-grandparent’s generation who fought ultimate evil in World War 2—and their parent’s generation who survived the Great Depression.

Things often seem bleak. Yet, things continue to improve for humanity:

  • There has been a significant reduction in extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has dramatically decreased from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015.
  • Longevity is increasing globally. Cancer death rates in the United States are expected to drop by 31% between 2015 and 2040 due to advancements in prevention, early detection, and treatment. Half of 5-year-olds today are expected to live to 100.
  • Renewable energy is the fastest-growing global energy source. Renewable energy capacity is projected to increase by over 60% from 2020 to 2030. This growth is expected to create millions of new jobs and contribute to mitigating climate change.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Please remain optimistic. Research demonstrates that optimism confers a range of benefits that can contribute to success in life: better physical health, stress management, psychological resilience, achievement and performance, and interpersonal relationships.

Recognize that life is a series of “marshmallow tests.” The now famous experiment conducted by Walter Mischel revealed that children who could resist the temptation of eating one marshmallow in order to be later rewarded with two marshmallows tended to have significantly higher SAT scores, educational achievement, and other positive life outcomes later on.

The marshmallow experiment exemplifies the benefits of delayed gratification.

Research further reveals that the ability to delay gratification include financial stability, career success, and healthier lifestyles. For example, the discipline to prioritize long-term health benefits over immediate pleasures (e.g., late-night binging) contributes to regular exercise, balanced diets, and lower obesity rates.

The ability to delay gratification—avoiding short-term pleasure to achieve long-term success— is a characteristic that world’s most successful people have in spades. And it’s something you have demonstrated (in spades) otherwise, you would not be in my class.

Adapt. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Put more directly: if the American Dream is out of reach, make a new dream. What will that look like for you? I don’t know. You must figure it out.

Throughout history, technology—from the plow to the internet—has taken jobs, but nearly as often, it has created new jobs (e.g., software developers, data scientists).

AI will be no different. Learn to be more creative and use AI to accelerate your career. Cultivate versatile human skills AI cannot replicate creativity, complex communication, collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship, and emotional intelligence.

I know that I sound like an old man in these letters. But that doesn’t mean that I am wrong. There is wisdom in knowing when to lean on tradition: read books and put to pen to paper, both which requires putting down your (damn) phone. There is also wisdom in knowing when to abandon tradition.

There are many paths to a remarkable life—and most are independent of homeownership. Instead of mindlessly consuming with your face in your phone, focus on experiences that enrich you. Look for opportunities to learn, create, and make a difference. Explore nature. Make things with your hands. Express yourself through writing or art. Spend time in person with friends and family. Mix it up!

In closing, I implore you: do not surrender the dreams simmering inside you just because the path to achieving them appears difficult. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult.

In the words of another old man, Winston Churchill, one who helped defeat the Nazis, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”


Peter McGraw